Psalter, Claymore and Bagpipes

The first chapter of The God Delusion is divided into two sections. The first section is entitled “Deserved Respect,” and talks about scientists like Einstein, Hawking, and others who use religious terminology to talk about the whoa-factor when it comes to just how cool the universe actually is. It is beyond dispute that lots of people (including scientists) get overwhelmed by the majesty of everything, and this regularly evokes religious-like sentiments, and that sometimes leads to religious-like forms of expression, even from the scientists. If traditional believers hear this language, they can too often jump to conclusions, and enlist the scientist in question on the side of the angels. Not so fast, says Dawkins.

There is not really a lot to talk about here — I quite agree that Einstein did not believe in a personal god. I think Dawkins does a decent job — the only substantive difference I would have with him is that he says that this is the only kind of religious expression that is deserving of respect. But of course that one difference makes all the difference.

“As I continue to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion on the one hand and Einsteinian religion on the other, bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional” (p. 15).

Well, I think lots of gods are delusional too, especially Thor, but we ought not to get distracted by these peripheral issues. We have other fish, as they say, to fry.

So the second part of this chapter begins his treatment of those expressions of religion that are not deserving of respect, and Dawkins certainly does not intend to render it. Quoting Mencken, Dawkins says that he will respect the other fellow’s religion, “but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart” (p. 27).

“The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language” (p. 19).

Dawkins thinks that “religions” of this latter type are way too pampered in our society, and that it has gotten to the point where no one is allowed to criticize something that is plainly nuts, provided that said something is done in the name of some religion or other. Ordinary activities and pursuits are not pampered in the same way. And he really has a point here, up to a point. Speaking of a court case where a religious group was allowed to use drugs for the sake of their “religion,” he says this:

“Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they ‘believe’ they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings” (p. 22).

Now I don’t want to go down a rabbit trail here, but it seems to me that a case arguing the need for hallucinogenic drugs in order to appreciate much that goes on in the contemporary art world could be quite a compelling one — but to pursue this point would take us too far afield. I want to get to the basic structural problem with how Dawkins is setting up the argument for the book.

He is quite right that many crazy things are done in the name of religion. He is also right that many crazy things are done in the name of the Christian religion. And so, in a deft move worthy of a young Napoleon in the field, he sets every form of supernatural religion on the one side (where they must all stand or fall together), and naturalism on the other. He sets this up as the choice before us, and he is now in a position to roll up his sleeves, spit on his hands, and get to work.

But wait a minute. Let’s do the same thing on another subject entirely. The content of the debate will change, but the structure of argumentation will be identical to that being used by Dawkins here. Instead of supernaturalism v. naturalism, let’s make it “medical treatments” v. “no medical treatments.”

The man who believes in “no medical treatments” can (if he remains healthy long enough) become quite a scourge for those bozos who believe in “medical treatments.” Every time the issue comes up, the skeptic can glibly refer to snake oil, naturopathy, eye of newt, chemotherapy, high fiber diets, chelation therapy, crystal healings, and antibiotics. These are all varied species of the genus “medical treatments.” And, you know, they are. And so the way this argument is constructed, the most sane medical doctor in the world has to answer for the joo joo bean cancer treatments, sold for a buck fifty at a nearby All Natural Health Emporium.

If the sane doctor tries to protest that he is against all the craziness in the “medical treatments” world, the skeptic has structured things in such a way that makes it most easy to disbelieve him.

“I refuse to believe you until you sever all ties with your fellow believers.”

“I am not a fellow believer. I don’t believe in the joo joo beans at all.”

“You say that, but you continue to adminster your own medications, do you not?”

“Well, yes . . .”

“Which also come in bottles? With printed labels?”

When Dawkins lights into radical Muslims going crazy over the Danish cartoons, I am right with him. Something really needs to be done about those people. When he talks about how Pope John Paul II made way too many people saints, my Scottish covenanter blood begins to rise, and I start hunting around for the psalter, claymore, and bagpipes. I begin muttering aye to myself.

But then I come back to earth. And I wonder, how is it that a false medical treatment can be used as an argument against all medical treatments? How does that work? How do forgeries prove that there is no original? How do counterfeiters show that there is no such thing as real money? Ah, I think to myself. There is some kind of funny business going on here.

Johnnie, M”Boy

The book I have been commenting (Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry) on makes it very clear that the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (which I hold) has to be considered a sine qua non of Reformed orthodoxy concerning justification (which I don’t hold). If you would like to read a very short article which shows how John Owen demolishes this assumption, then click here. HT: David Field

Kind of Tacky to Point Out

In Chapter Two of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, David VanDrunen continues to sound the alarm. The doctrine of justification is “under fire” (p. 25), being attacked (p. 25), there are “three distinct lines of attack” (p. 26), and he concludes that “justification is indeed under attack” (p. 57).

He desires to describe the views of the attackers “accurately and fairly” (p. 26), and in some cases, he may have done so. The three lines of attack he mentions are modern ecumenical movements, the New Perspective on Paul, and Federal Vision stuff. I don’t have a lot to say about his treatment of the first two, but I do need to say something about the third.

He categorized those of us in this third “line of attack” as “self-styled Reformed church leaders” (p. 26), and we are leaders of the “self-styled federal vision” (p. 52). I am not sure what this means, but it sounds like we got our theological education in night school after teaching ourselves to read off of milk cartons. Kind of tacky to point out, even if it is true.

When he gets to our line of attack, he starts with Norman Shepherd. My point is not so much Shepherd’s position here as it is VanDrunen’s idea of refutation. Watch closely.

“First, Shepherd’s teaching denies, or at least redefines, the idea that justification is by faith alone” (p. 49, emphasis his).

And how is that? How does Shepherd deny this?

“In his book, Shepherd repeatedly stresses that justifying faith is an active, living, obedient faith. Given the context of debates over justification, such language is inherently ambiguous” (p. 49).

Then apparently the only way to get through ambiguous justification debates is to insist that we are justified by an inert, dead, and disobedient faith. That way all the glory goes to Christ, and nobody gets the wrong idea.

“In short, whereas Reformed theology teaches that faith alone, defined as an extraspective trust in Christ and his atoning work, justifies and that obedience, which is never to be confused with faith itself, inevitably flows from justifying faith” (p. 49).

Okay, let’s talk for a moment about this “flows from” business. The Bible teaches in multiple places that the nature of the source determines the nature of that which comes from the source. You don’t get pineapples off bramble bushes. Fresh springs don’t produce brackish water. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, and so on. If obedience flows from justifying faith, then obedience has to have had something to do with that justifying faith. Like begets like. God does not intrude the obedience a nanosecond later in a work of special creation. No — God establishes life with regeneration, and that life continues to manifest itself through the entire life of the believer in question, including in his justifying faith. God does not justify anyone because of what a fine job they are doing with their life, but He never used a dead faith to justify anybody.

VanDrunen continues to represent Shepherd this way:

“Furthermore, ‘a living and active faith is the fruit of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.’ Whereas the Reformation doctrine has always taught that sanctification is a fruit of justifying faith, here Shepherd says just the opposite — that faith is the fruit of sanctification” (p. 50).

Two responses. The first is to just quote Calvin. Work through what Calvin says here, and see if you can find in it what VanDrunen says the Reformation doctrine “has always taught.” The emphasis in bold is mine.

“Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which alone we are reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same time grasping sanctification also. For he ‘is given unto us for righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30). Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies. But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness” (Calvin, Institutes, III.xvi.1).

Calvin is dealing with this topic in a sensible, pastoral, Christocentric way. He is doing so in a way that avoids the stopwatch problems with the traditional Reformed ordo salutis, if that ordo is conceived of in a clunky way. Calvin’s approach here harmonizes nicely, in my view, with Richard Gaffin’s treatment of the ordo in his book on the subject. (Have I mentioned that Gaffin blurbed Shepherd’s book, and that P & R published it?) The ordo is an illustration, a metaphor, meant to preserve a right understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It is like a paper mache model of an atom, hanging above a fifth grade classroom. There is a point to the illustration, which must be grasped, but, once it is grasped, you ought to stop thinking of the atom as a teeny solar system.

That said, those who insist on living by the ordo will die by the ordo.

“For example, Shepherd reasons that because regeneration is the beginning of sanctification, hence saving faith (which is subsequent to regeneration) is produced by sanctification and, therefore, sanctification begins prior to justification” (p. 50).

VanDrunen mentions this argument which, given the ordo, is actually unanswerable. Regeneration (a change of heart) is prior to justification. The initial change of heart (definitive sanctification) is prior to the on-going change of heart (progressive sanctification), and justification is the meat in this sanctification sandwich. First comes a form of sanctification, a change of heart, which enables me to repent and believe. Because I have been changed in my heart, I repent and believe and God imputes the righteousness of Christ to me (justification). Now, given the constraints of the ordo, how is it that all subsequent sanctification must flow from justification only? Why can’t it flow from the earlier sanctification? And why are you not willing to say that the faith that is the instrument of justification in some sense flows from definitive sanctification?

The only response VanDrunen gives to Shepherd’s question is that of a twofold denial. First, he says that Shepherd clearly denies that good works are “entirely” the fruits of justifying faith. And second, he says that Shepherd clearly affirms that “sanctification actually precedes justification.” No. Shepherd is not saying this. Shepherd is simply pointing out that the traditional Reformed ordo says this. And it does, in kind of an undeniable way. It is simply astonishing to me that in a book like this, a writer could mention a potent argument like this, presented by his opponent, and then proceed blithely on without answering it, or even attempting to answer it.

If you go with the ordo, the model of the atom, some form of sanctification comes first. If you don’t like that, then don’t yell at Shepherd. Ditch the ordo, and declare that William Perkins, or whoever came up with it, crept into the Reformed camp four centuries ago to spy out our liberty. But if you keep it, don’t get upset with the people who pay close attention to what it says. But if you acknowledge that the ordo has some problems, then that leads to descriptions like Calvin’s above. But notice that Calvin doesn’t have good works flowing from a justification that is made of some completely different stuff. He has sanctification and justification simultaneously coming to the sinner from an undivided Christ. So you need to keep an eye on Calvin, along with that Perkins fellow.

One other quick point before I am done with this chapter. As I have said many times, I enthusiastically embrace the doctrine of imputed righteousness, and I affirm that the righteousness that is imputed to the believer is all the righteousness of Christ. What is imputed to me? Everything Jesus said and did, as well as His life of faith that was the spring of everything he said and did. I am justified by Jesus believing, by the faith of Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:18). That faith was the source of His sinless life and His sacrificial death. All of this is ours, imputed to us. His active and passive obedience both are credited to the believer, and to all His people. I trust that is clear enough.

But I reject, as enthusiastically as Rich Lusk does (p. 54), the idea of merit. If you want to maintain that Christ’s obedience belongs to His people, and is imputed to His elect, I am right with you. Not only do I agree, but would be willing to preach six sermons in a row on it, and I would have plenty of texts and to spare. If you want me to preach on “the Lord our righteousness,” it is the same, and I would gladly do it. Not only is it right, it is the need of the hour. But if you want me to preach a series of sermons on merit, then you are going to have to help me out. Where are the texts?

Breaking a Bad Habit

For many centuries, the Church has been cultivating the bad habit of seeing this time of communion a time of introspection.

But if there is anything that is a barrier to communion, it is the self-absorption that we have come to associate with this meal. So, as you come, do not curl up into a little ball and do not think about your shortcomings. You already confessed your sins an hour ago. This is dinner; you have already washed up, some time ago.

Do not close your eyes. Look around at all the saints that are gathered here. They are the body of Christ, together with you, and when you look at them this way, you are discerning the body of Christ.

You are not to be looking at the bread, or the wine in the cup, trying to do some theological metaphysics. You are being knit together, into a perfect man, all of you together, and you are united to the head of the body, the Lord Jesus Christ. You best assume this role when you are aware of how others are doing the same.

You are serving as an eye when you gladly reflect on how others are an ear, or fingers, or a foot. When we see the diversity that exists in the unified body of Christ, you are learning true spiritual wisdom.

You will not learn this if you spend this time reflecting on what a poor eye you have been all week. That may be, but that is no reason to continue sinning in just the same way as you approach the Table. If you have been selfish during the week, confess it, and forsake it. Particularly, forsake it here.

This meal is a communal meal. It is not about you in solitary. This meal was established by the grace of God, and is therefore all about Him, and all about us together. Whenever you see your morbid individualism creeping to disrupt this meal, chase it away with loud shouts. Chase it down the road, throwing rocks at it. Then come back to the Table—come back and commune with us.

Moving Beyond Repentance

The joy of the Lord is our strength. As we pray for reformation, as we worship with reformation in mind.

This phrase, taken from Nehemiah, should not be mis-rendered. We should not say, “The grief of the Lord is our strength.” God’s purpose is to save and deliver us. This does entail the grief that comes with repentance, but grieving repentance that never moves beyond itself is not really repentance. God did not ordain that we would all get spiritual cancer so that He would have the opportunity to put us through everlasting chemo treatments. He gives us the grief of repentance so that we might move on to the joy of healing and faith. And the joy of faith is our strength.

Still less is the joy of man our strength. Light, frothy, giggly worship is not the solid and majestic thing that God-honoring worship is. When God is honored, all other things take their rightful place and assume a dignity they cannot have in any other way.

This joy is the joy that comes from citizenship in a new city, a new polis, a new political order. This new order in heaven and on earth is a monarchy and Jesus Christ is the king of this kingdom. And His realm is not limited to the tiny confines of your heart and mine. He is the Lord of heaven and earth, all nations have been given into His hand. Shall He not have His way with them? Will He, given this glorious scepter, refuse to rule with it?

This being the case, and because you belong to Him, you worship Him with joy inexpressible and full of glory. And this joy is your strength. “With salvation’s walls surrounded, thou mayest smile at all thy foes.”

From the Low Bottom of the Heart

“What is interesting is not Tyndale’s negation of the allegories but his positive attitude towards the literal sense. He loves it for its ‘grossness’ . . . Tyndale’s fame as an English writer has been most unjustly overshadowed both by the greater fame of More and by his own reputation as a translator. He seems to me the best prose writer of his age. He is inferior to More in what may be called the elbow-room of the mind and (of course) in humour. In every other respect he surpasses him; in economy, in lucidity, and above all in rhythmical vitality. He reaches at times a piercing quality which is quite outside More’s range” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, pp. 131-132).

A Fun House Mirror

“The Lord raised up Islam as a parody or mirror of Christianity, which is designed to expose our failings and to call us to faithfulness. Indeed, Mohammed’s life strikingly recapitulates the history of Israel. Called (so he claimed) by Allah, Mohammed led his people out of Mecca to Medina, established his rule in Medina, and then conquered a promised land, which included his original hometown of Mecca. Within a century after his death, the promised land has expanded to imperial proportions, including Persia, Iraq, and North Africa. In the sixth century, Yahweh tore the robe that was Eastern Christendom, and gave a large swath to Mohammed. Mohammed is wearing it still” (Peter Leithart, Mirror of Christendom, p. 6).

Back to Lateral Metaphors

“Our minds are not infinite; and as the volume of the world’s knowledge increases, we tend more and more to confine ourselves, each to his special sphere of interest and to the specialized metaphor belonging to it. The analytic bias of the last three centuries has immensely encouraged this tendency, and it is now very difficult for the artist to speak the language of the theologian or the scientist the language of either. But the attempt must be made; and there are signs everywhere that the human mind is once more beginning to move towards a synthesis of experience” (Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 30-31).